The Boredom/Anxiety Cycle

When your body says: “Why not have both?”

For about a year and a half now I’ve been in a constant state of intense planning. My plans started really coming into effect about 4 months ago. I’ll have to continue this way of doing things until the summer, and I’ll finally be done with everything I’ve planned about a year from now. This is what happens when you decide to have kids in grad school and also move across the country and also get a jump start on your dissertation and also and also….

I don’t recommend this way of life. It’s doable, certainly, but beyond all the careful organization and many hours of research and considering contingency plans, it just requires a lot of mental and emotional effort that gets absolutely exhausting when you carry on for this long. Making sure these plans will work requires envisioning how you will feel at any given moment, because if you break under the pressure it doesn’t matter how carefully crafted the whole thing is, you’re just not going to see it through. I’m currently in the midst of shifting some of my research plans because I’ve realized that the balance of childcare to being away from my children that I prefer is different than I anticipated while I was pregnant. And this was a hard realization to come to, because the thought of messing with the plans I’d already made was so overwhelmingly exhausting that I didn’t want to think about it. But I’m doing my future self a favor by considering her feelings now and dragging myself back into things to set them up in a better way.

Once I got started making plans for my future months and years, the planning almost became addictive, certainly compulsive, and it spawned an emotional cycle through boredom to anxiety and back. The problem with careful planning is that you can’t just do it for one thing, you have to start doing it for everything (in case you’re wondering and would also like to become addicted to planning, I use Trello). It wasn’t enough to anticipate where I would be at any given time of the year, because I had to know whether that calendar made sense in terms of the availability of my resources, my childcare options, and the trips before and after. I had to plan so many things that I started planning things that don’t need to be planned. I find myself counting items that I pick up when there is no value in counting them – like folded shirts out of the laundry or a handful of popcorn. I’m imposing order on every aspect of my life because doing so has become a habit, and the threat of not doing it is so massive – wasting my time, wasting my fellowship money, ruining my children, ruining my marriage, burning myself out. This intense anxiety sits behind every act of planning and leads to these crazy and unnecessary acts of organization. But because this anxiety is so overwhelming, I also have to moderate it with frequent breaks – telling myself not to plan, not to organize, not to clean up. Sit down, take a break. Have a hot drink and watch a show. But when I do, I often find that nothing is interesting, or at least, nothing is satisfying in the way that planning is. I have a compulsive need to make everything productive, from my time with my children (tummy time is important stimulation!) to my emotional check-ins with myself (there’s nothing useful about this venting session anymore, I’m just complaining now!). And so anything I do that doesn’t seem purposeful to the bigger picture of my life right now feels boring.

I first articulated this intense planning compulsion a little over a year ago, when I gave it the name “scuppersing”. Scuppersing is the anxious feeling that it is necessary to organize something, and it can be satisfied by activities like cleaning the kitchen, comparison shopping, or looking at storage containers that divide into perfectly-sized compartments for a variety of objects. The word scuppersing refers to the 1953 children’s book The Sailor Dog in which the main character, a dog named Scuppers, becomes a sailor out of his deep desire but with little experience. The book rhythmically describes Scuppers organizing objects on his boat and later (spoiler alert!) in his house after he becomes shipwrecked:

In his ship Scuppers had a little room. In his room Scuppers had a hook for his hat and a hook for his rope and a hook for his handkerchief and a hook for his pants and a hook for his spyglass and a place for his shoes and a bunk for a bed to put himself in.

This kind of language is really satisfying to a young child who is learning about pairing things and matching shapes to silhouettes. But it’s also supposed to echo the theme of the book, which is belonging. Scuppers belongs at sea because it’s where he was born, even though he doesn’t really know how to sail. The reader feels, even if they don’t know it, that if Scuppers can only make his home at sea perfect, if he can make a place for everything, then he’ll overcome his inexperience and settle where he belongs. So scuppersing is more than just a compulsion to tidy up, it’s a feeling that if you set things up just right, your bigger problems will be solved.

The problem with scuppersing is that you can try to satisfy it with activities that don’t actually solve your problems and maybe create new ones. Compulsive shopping is one scuppersing-driven activity – if only you find the right day planner to help you keep things together or the right shoes for that trip, everything will go smoothly. But if you have enough wherewithal, you’ll stop yourself from buying things you don’t actually need, and you’ll find yourself sitting on the couch twiddling your thumbs.

The boredom, the letdown, that follows this state of anxious planning is the hardest part of this emotional cycle. It’s necessary, because the high energy of the anxiety stage is enough to make you physically tired, or you just reach a point where your planning is no longer productive. But it’s also frustrating because that down time feels pointless. Even worse, it can feel unsatisfying. If you put enough time and energy into being organized, you stop knowing what to do with unstructured time, or even being able to feel satisfied by unstructured activities. I can no longer lose myself in a good book – my dark secret as an academic is that I no longer enjoy reading because it’s no longer a passive activity for me. I’m always thinking, always criticizing, always finding a purpose or making a connection. TV is ok, videogames are ok, but only to a point. Because the schedule of the day keeps going and I can’t take too much time to tune out. Dinner needs to be made or laundry needs to be done. That piece of writing is waiting for edits.

You can call the boredom phase procrastination, but that’s unfair. Procrastination implies laziness, even though we’re pretty sure it’s just another form of anxiety. This boredom is the result of a conflict between the need to rest and the desire to keep going. It’s your brain and body stalling. While I was pregnant I stumbled through this cycle on a weekly basis, struggling to get anything done because I found myself trapped by physical limitations – I couldn’t walk to the library or I had to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Once you reach this boredom state, this stall, even small tasks feel massive and the weight of obligation becomes crushing. The need for relieve is intense, but your obligations continue to lurk. Maybe you find the activity that recharges you, or maybe you just get so bored that you wipe the slate clean and go back to work with a sense of blank clarity. Either way, the cycle completes and you return to planning.

I don’t have advice on how to break this cycle – frankly, I’m not sure it needs to be broken. No, I’m no enjoying this way of life, but I’m committed to making it temporary and setting things up in the future so that I’m not in this position again. Yes, in a way, that’s more planning. After this year is over, I’m planning to space things out more and take on fewer things that have to happen at the same time. I’m planning to be home more. I’m planning more loosely-structured time. I think the problem with the way things are right now is just that there’s too much. I’m not going to pretend that life will get simpler – after all, I have toddlerhood and the academic job market to look forward to – but I have the power to spread things out. I can refuse to take on new projects, I can take the easy road. I recognize that my solution to every problem is to try harder, to force myself to use more discipline, to do more. This was good to a point, but now I’ve gone past it and into the territory of making things overly difficult and complicated. My hope is that by spreading things out the anxiety/boredom cycle will be gentler, or maybe be replaced by a less emotionally-taxing productivity/restfulness cycle. I’m taking it one step at a time.